Performance
May 7, 2012

Dealing with the all-consuming deficit

“What keeps you up at night?” The Institute of Public Administration of Canada has been asking deputy ministers and chief administrative officers of municipalities this question since 1994, learning more about their perspectives, experience and, ultimately, their reflections and best judgments.

Many organizations survey Canadian leaders, so what makes IPAC’s survey unique? Private firms, associations and governments themselves are anxious to learn more about public sector issues. As a national non-profit association dedicated to excellence in government, IPAC has focused on this influential and knowledgeable cadre to better understand what our top leaders are thinking. The results help inform research agendas and assist governments in both policy and decision making.

This year’s survey was enhanced under the direction of research committee chair, Ontario Deputy Minister George Ross, with major contributions from Catherine Althaus, Bryan Evans, David Good, Graham White, Paul Lafleche and Linda Swanston. The survey had 180 participants from all levels of government across Canada. The early findings provide some interesting insights.

Economic priorities and policy capacity

There is no doubt that the global environment over the last couple of years has presented different challenges and opportunities than those faced even 10 years ago. All levels of government are now facing substantial deficits and increasing demands for services and support. It is not surprising that two matters rose to the surface – a dominant priority around the economy and the reduced policy capacity in the public sector.

As one would anticipate, when asked, “what are your top public sector management priorities,” this year’s public sector leaders emphasized fiscal capacity, cost controls, and deficit budgeting issues compared to previous surveys. Concerns about confidence in public institutions and public service HR challenges were a distant second. Among public policy priorities, the economic situation was rated as the most important (at 63%), with healthcare, aging population, environment, aboriginal issues, productivity and education a distinct second tier. Governments face mounting financial pressures but need to address public expectations and demographic changes in their organizations. Ranking external pressures, DMs and CAOs pointed to the global economic situation followed by political parties and media coverage of the public service as having the greatest impact.

Other questions focused on enterprise-wide systems for innovation, risk management, performance measurement and accountability and the mixed results suggest much remains to be done in these areas.

Policy capacity can be described as the combination of expertise, resources and time to analyze policies and to chart a vision for action. Of course, interest in this topic has been the preoccupation of leading decision makers and academics for some time, as witnessed by recent roundtables and taskforces as well as academic journals. When DMs and CAOs were asked if they “believe policy capacity is eroding,” a majority of respondents agreed (63%). Asked whether “short term issues are compromising long-term planning in the public sector,” 88% agreed – and added more than 100 comments. These unequivocal and gloomy observations came from Canadian leaders in every order of government dealing with increasingly complex policy issues, myriad stakeholders, competing priorities and scarce resources.

It was also recognized that the world of policymaking is getting very crowded. “Policy used to be the domain of public servants. Now it is often created by politicians, by the press or by interested third parties.” Leaders are concerned that managing today’s crisis is leaving little room for more strategic thinking and planning. As one respondent noted, “dealing with the deficit is all-consuming.” It is becoming increasingly more difficult to deal with longer-term planning for such matters as infrastructure, healthcare, poverty reduction, education, economic development and the environment. Some blamed budget cuts, media attention, “too-frequent changes in assignments” or the exigencies of minority governments and the election cycle. As one municipal CAO wrote, “long-term policy issues…are constantly put on the back burner and the rising demand for ‘just in time’ policy can outpace the public service’s capacity to deliver clear, well thought-out analysis and options.”

The area of policy capacity deficits warrants further investigation by IPAC and academics. Prof. Althaus suggested that perceptions need empirical testing, but that “if officials feel there is a capacity problem, then this becomes the dominant context and mindset; capacity becomes a distraction, an excuse or an opportunity to focus efforts and explore ways of improvement.”

Other interesting results

This year/s survey provided an opportunity for public sector leaders to talk about the intersection of bureaucratic and political roles. When questioned whether “senior public servants were being asked increasingly to perform [political] tasks,” DMs and CAOs were almost evenly divided (40% agreed, 46% disagreed, with 14% expressing no opinion).

Prof. Evans said that this aspect of the job is not new but part of the challenge of working closely with elected officials. It could indicate a deepening of DMs’ and CAOs’ responsiveness to their political environment. Respondents who were concerned about increased politicization mentioned being involved in political spin, delivering negative messaging to key stakeholders, and “becoming the face of the government for political decisions” to the media. “The strained relations [between political staff and bureaucracy] are because political staff employs a political calculus while the bureaucracy is oriented toward substantive influence of policy,” commented one respondent.

Public service culture

“The public respects and trusts civil servants, and feels they have integrity”: 60% of DMs and CAOs agreed but 38% disagreed. Despite that split, 90% indicated high career satisfaction. “The internal public service culture is upbeat and relatively strong, with high recourse to notions of public service being a vocation of nobility and high calling … with paradoxical concerns over the capacity of the institution to address external demands and ongoing internal vitality,? according to Althaus.

Partnering down under

For the first time ever, IPAC’s public sector survey has gone global. The parallels between Australian and Canadian systems of government and public administration permit valuable comparisons. With this in mind, the Institute of Public Administration of Australia agreed to employ the same survey with 300 of its own public sector leaders. IPAC and IPAA will be working with leading academics to analyze the data in the months ahead. Further opportunities are being explored to provide analysis to senior leaders in Canada and Australia, to enhance future research and learn from international comparisons and contrasts: at the recent IPAC national conference, outgoing president Denise Amyot offered the DM/CAO survey tool to other international institutes. In the near future, we may be comparing the results from a number of jurisdictions from around the globe.

Conclusions

The annual survey of deputy ministers and municipal CAOs provides the opportunity to document, contrast and analyze the most significant issues facing the public sector today and tomorrow. It provides public leaders with a unique snapshot of their colleagues’ views, and lets them compare their own perspectives with those of their peers. The results can be used to inform both policy and decision-making processes and, over time, the trends will a

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